"There is something I wanted to ask you, Carlo. About my childhood..." I hesitated, trying to sense whether my father would be open to it or not. "It is a very intense memory, and a little... upsetting. May I?"
My father was silent for a few moments, watching the metropolitan landscape of high rises violently lightened that paraded behind the windows of the cab. He wouldn't make any comment, but I could imagine how distinct it was for him, coming from our ancestral lands where, instead of buildings, the walls to meet his eyes were the beautiful high mountains. For years I had lived in Vice City, and never before realized how rudely artificial it was. Having arrived in the town egress from rural France, and having spent my childhood on an island where only public buildings had a second floor or a third floor, the skyscrapers had seemed a portent to me. Like I would later perceive after the blackout, the prodigies of our artificial civilization were based on fragile lies.
Carlo's silences often prolonged so that I was led to doubt whether he had heard my question. Apart from the air conditioning that hissed like it were having an asthma attack, it was practically silent inside the cab. The driver had lowered the radio to a minimum, to listen in on our conversation, I feared -- and I couldn't care less. But had my father been so engrossed in his memories that my voice had not reached him?
"I know what you want to ask, Laurent." Carlo sighed. "Your response was startling, both for Catherine and me. It was the first time you were seriously sick, not just a child's flu. You spent days in bed, perhaps even two weeks," My father would make a terrible biographer, I thought, with his inaccuracy for time, "having outbursts of crying while Catherine and I unskillfully quarreled outside of our chalet." He paused. "But after that, she never dated in the house again."
"Who was he, Carlo?" After so many years, it seemed pathetical that my voice trembled in asking that question. But the question had remained stuck in my throat, and it was the voice of the five years old boy speaking through me, at the age of thirty three.
"Who was the guy my mother was kissing, Carlo?" I choked on the words again.
I had kept that question to myself for almost thirty years. I probably would have talked to my dad about it before, if he had not left home. But things had not happened that way. Catherine had kept her privacy from me behind a wall of cynicism and practicality, and there had never been space to pose any question about her affairs. The therapist I had tried in Vice City was too lost in his own emotional maze to actually achieve intellectually deconstructing mine. My healing would have to waiting two decades to start, in the back of a taxi.
It was my first year at school, terrifying enough to an only child like me who lived in a world of adults, and was not used to competing with other kids.
One day, I had come home to walk on my mother kissing another man, on a pavilion at a corner of the pool where the sauna was located, that was rarely used when the house was not full of guests.
No one used to go there, and thus had I chosen that spot as my favorite hideout, where I could play my solitary games without anyone seeing nor hearing me. No one had ever found me there, either. And I would leave it only if I heard someone calling my name. Until that kiss, it had been the safe harbor of my childish fantasies. From then on, I lost it to the blunt reality of the adults' wrongdoings.
At that pavilion that I considered my refuge, I had seen Catherine and a guy kissing -- although they had not seen me.
And since I had never seen my mother kissing my father, I was completely confused and perplexed.
Inconspicuously, I sprinted to the back of the property. I was running for my survival, because it seemed that the ground before had turned into quicksand, and I'd be dragged and forever disappear from the world -- I guess I felt I had already disappeared from my mother's life -- if I couldn't reach the safety of home. Home being a rundown cottage we had to once in a while abandon for the kitchen in the main house, during the worst storms, fearing it would collapse.
Just when I saw myself inside the empty chalet -- Carlo was working in the garden of someone else's house, Catherine entertaining herself with that man -- had I started crying. Then sobbing, and for hours I went on crying, all alone, lying on my little bed jabbed next to the bathroom door, until I had finally slept, exhausted.
And it took me several days to begin to reveal my suffering.
"Do you kiss Aunt Joanna in the mouth, Dad?" I remember asking Carlo. Joanna, the maid, was the other woman in my life, apart from occasional appearances from Clothilde, and the teachers at school.
Although I'm sure I did not know what kissing was. Maybe first I had asked him what a kiss was, for I remember having shown him the cover of one of Catherine's books, where a passionate kiss between a man and a woman was depicted.
"Of course not, Laurent!" Carlo had been intrigued with my unexpected question. "Aunt Joanna is married to Uncle Will, and they only kiss between themselves... Do you understand it?" Carlo answered honestly. "Why are you asking me this?" At first, he had thought I had had my first stolen kiss at school.
For days, my parents were trying to understand where my suffering came from. I went on crying, I stopped eating, I even developed a baffling, insistent fever that medicine would not bring down and kept me from going to school for days.
"Then why was mommy kissing that other man?" I asked Carlo, perhaps many days later, when we were just the two of us in the chalet.
That's when I unleashed the first serious crisis in our small family.
"Mark." Carlo finally replied. "His name was Mark."
"Who was he?" I insisted. Carlo could very well think that by just saying the guy's name, he would be answering my question. Almost thirty years later, my perplexity and my sorrow were the only things I could recall from the episode. That name did not ring any bells.
"He was the only son of Johnny and Clothilde." My father sighed before continuing, his voice drenched with melancholy. "He used to come to Punaouilo when his parents were not there. To feel free. He enjoyed racing fast cars around the island, to drink and to spend the night at the clubs." Carlo was describing what seemed like a spoiled brat, yet he uttered no word of criticism. "I think he was the one who introduced Catherine to heavy drinking, for he would take your mother with him to the best restaurants and the pool bars of the resorts... and pay for everything, of course. All the glamour that Catherine had been missing, she found it again in Mark's company."
"You knew about it, Carlo?" To be honest, what I wanted was to ask how Carlo could have accepted Catherine's infidelity. It seemed shocking that she was already unfaithful to Carlo in such an early stage of their relationship.
But anyhow, it was enough to think about my own reasons for having stayed with Angelo for eight years, during which he had constantly cheated on me -- "I'm exercising my freedom", he used to say, which meant having sex with other guys whenever he felt like it -- and he always felt like it! Angelo had 'opened' our relationship, although I had never agreed to it.
"We have had a child together. We're not married, Carlo! Catherine had stated the conditions of our relationship very clearly." Carlo sighed. "To stay in a relationship with me, she had to remain feeling free, and act according to her own desire. Ultimately, for us to be a family, to remain being a family, she had to feel free... Even when she wasn't so free... Do you understand me, Laurent?"
I closed my eyes, inhaling and exhaling deeply -- and almost choked on the mixed scent of damp leather and lousy air freshener. A cab was no place to tentatively practice mindfulness, I guessed.
Carlo's response that he had accepted Catherine cheating on him so that we could remain a family, implied and reiterated not only the love he felt for her, but above all, the love he felt for me.
"Catherine did not want to give up her practice of free love. I guess she saw in Punaouilo the same flow of transient foreigners that had constituted the river of her sex life in Paris. But after all, Punaouilo was not Paris. There was a small local society, who had never heard about l'amour libre, watching and judging her, all the time." Carlo reflected in silence, before resuming. "Actually, I think that Mark was Catherine's only boyfriend in Punaouilo. Even so, she was unpopular and poorly spoken of on the island, and it led her to further isolate herself from the local society, which she considered old fashioned, primitive and stuck."
"How long did it last, Carlo?" I tried to encourage my father's unusual openness on that subject, and watched as we progressed along the avenues of Vice City. Maybe I would need to ask the driver to stop at an ATM, if I wanted him to keep on driving. I'd do anything, pay whatever needed, to keep the words coming from my father. Compared to a therapist, it was still considerably cheaper.
"A couple of years. When Mark met Catherine, he started coming twice or three times a year, to his own family's surprise, until their affair finally came to an end. 'They are so rude', Catherine had said one day, returning home almost in the middle of the morning, after a night out with Mark. Sometimes, the couple would spend the night at a hotel, since you had caught on them. Your mother was experiencing an unusual freedom with you spending your mornings at school, Laurent, and the affair had reached a peak. That day, I was home in between jobs, as usual worrying about not having enough money. I had never seen Catherine so scared and saddened. Apparently, Mark had 'recommended' her for his American friends visiting the island. 'They think l'amour libre is just an easy fuck. Fuck them all!' she had yelled. It was one of the very few times I saw Catherine crying."
You might have heard the gossip about your grandmother Celeste, and I suppose Catherine was specially offended for being considered herself a first rate hooker, the only European and top of her class in Puanouilo, according to Mark. It was the end of the line for them -- and we both feared we would be thrown out of the house after that. But that fear existed only in our fantasies -- Mark wasn't a resentful man, nor did he like Catherine that much to mention her to his parents. He simply never came back to Punaouilo.
Anyway, after that, I think she never got involved with another man in Punaouilo, except perhaps for an occasional sailor or a tourist.
I had stomach cramps, and I knew it was not the impeccable food from the Nirvana Lounge. But even if I developed diarrhea, I could not have hopped off my own emotional roller coaster, and I kept on questioning Carlo. "I imagine she wouldn't tell her lovers that she had a son..." With that, I implied not only the years in Punaouilo, but Catherine's love life in France, too.
I had a clear memory of our bedroom, or 'the chalet' as my parents preferred to romantically -- or had it been ironically -- refer to. Quite small and cramped. Even on the sunniest days, it was dark inside, and always damp. I remember the perfect silence that Catherine demanded of me when I was in there, or even nearby, and that obligation had always made me tense and apprehensive. I tried to never displease her, and trying to get her affection, I was possibly the most obedient boy that has ever lived. Sometimes I think my mother realized it, and my silent begging that kept me under strict obedience was quite to her liking. Yes, I mean it -- maybe Catherine was never very affectionate so that I would remain obedient and docile. And she might have handled my father just the same.
But suddenly I realized that the strain I felt in that room was not only my struggle to be a good boy. There was a constant tension between Carlo and Catherine, and to that the horror with which I anticipated their quarrels. But even their silence was stressed and uncomfortable.
"Nor even mention that she had a..." Carlo thought for a moment before answering me. What had he been for Catherine? Not her husband, for they never had married. Companion, partner? Hardly ever. In fact, since my father had told me that Catherine had tried to treat him as an employee from the very beginning at the Île du Blanchomme, I was considering whether she hadn't succeeded, after all. "I suppose she wouldn't mention it, no..." Carlo replied simply, and then he quit talking.
Cheating on her own child might not have been very appealing to Catherine, but it seemed like she had enjoyed cheating on Carlo... "It's so sexy, babe!" Angelo had thus justified his constant cheating on me, in the final years of our relationship. I wondered if she had felt the same. He seemed to delight from sharing with me other men's fluids, that he would come home drenched with -- and howl from pleasure when I'd penetrate to find him already lubricated.
For the first time, I thought that maybe I had found and taken 'my own Catherine' for my first love affair -- and that thought seemed so depressing and wicked. I had never developed an Oedipus complex, but now that I was associating Angelo to Catherine's updated image -- I felt sick.
I hadn't been a victim, it is what dawned upon me during that taxi ride through Vice City -- I had volunteered to suffer in Angelo's hands. Was it because I might have been used to suffering in Catherine's hands? Or because I had gotten used to seeing my father suffering in my mother's hands? My head was spinning, and I knew I couldn't blame it on the driver's sharp turns.